[Screen It]

(2005) (Flora Cross, Richard Gere) (PG-13)

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Drama: A religious studies professor realizes too late that his family is falling apart as his young daughter makes her way toward competing in the National Spelling Bee competition.
Saul Naumann (RICHARD GERE) is a religions studies professor in Oakland who's fascinated with the teachings and secrets of Kabbalah. Thus, when his sixth-grade daughter, Eliza (FLORA CROSS), seems to be channeling some sort of supernatural force that's allowing her to win at local spelling bees, he suddenly becomes enamored with helping her strengthen her gift that he believes is a pathway directly to God.

With his attention now focused solely on her for seemingly the first time in his life, he doesn't recognize his wife Miriam's (JULIETTE BINOCHE) growing depression and worsening mental instability. Still affected by a past traumatic event where she lost her parents in a car accident, she's progressively spending more of her time away from the house and lurking about others' homes, looking for something she thinks might fix everything in her life.

At the same time and now no longer the focus of his father's attention, older son Aaron (MAX MINGHELLA) begins to question his religious beliefs, a point that makes him vulnerable to the alluring Chali (KATE BOSWORTH), a Hare Krishna whose messages seem to mesh with what he's experiencing. As Eliza continues her winning ways through the various levels of spelling bees, her family unit begins to unravel as its various members search for meaning and answers in their lives.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Considering the acclaim garnered by the documentary "Spellbound" as well as the off-Broadway hit "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," you'd think that such spelldowns were suddenly hip again. And with the release of "Bee Season" -- no, not a disaster film or a big screen adaptation of the old "Saturday Night Live" skit featuring John Belushi and others -- that's only reiterated in this familial drama where such a contest not only is the main focus of the story, but also a catalyst for change.

In fact, and aside from the above documentary, few films have focused as much rapt attention on a contestant and what goes through their mind when conjuring up those letters to form words that most of us have never heard of before, let alone would be able to spell. Directors Scott McGehee & David Siegel ("The Deep End") and their visual effects team figuratively get inside the head of young Eliza -- terrifically underplayed by Flora Cross -- as she sees letters forming from or within everyday things, as if channeling some supernatural power that nudges her toward the correct choice.

Yet, rather than just being a sports type film in spelling bee clothes (where the girl competes her way toward the championship while practicing, overcoming obstacles and the like), this adaptation of Myla Goldberg's novel strives to be something more. Okay, something a great deal more, although it's not always as successful or clearly focused as many viewers would probably like.

In its 100-some minute run-time, it not only covers said bees (starting local and then moving to regional, state and finally the national championship), but also religion of various practices, all sorts of family dynamics (mostly of the strained variety), mental health issues and an occasionally but only partially revisited traumatic event sometime in the past (presumably related to the contestant's maternal grandparents, although that's never fully spelled out).

While I think I understand what the directing duo and screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal are trying to do with all of Goldberg's original material -- at least thematically -- I didn't find that they always dotted all of their I's or crossed all of their T's. That's particularly true regarding the previous vehicular accident that's only partially and briefly seen in a handful of brief flashbacks, all tied solely to the mother (played by Juliette Binoche).

Since they're connected in one instance to what also seems like a flashback to a past lovemaking session between the confident husband and progressively withdrawing wife (where he says they can fix things which are broken), I originally thought perhaps they had lost a child in the accident. I then began to wonder if the story was jumping around in time and perhaps the young bee contestant was really dead and we were seeing her bits in flashback.

Alas, the film isn't quite that clever, although it's certainly trying to look, sound and feel profound in its examination of evolving -- or, more accurately, devolving -- family relationships and associated dynamics. We see right away that the husband/wife pairing is already strained, and that the intelligent but emotionally detached father has shifted his focus on associated success from his son -- with whom he used to play string duets -- to his daughter, but only after she's won the local spelling bee.

Richard Gere plays that man, a professor of religion who sees his daughter's unique ability as a way to tie that in with his interest in Kabbalah, a closely guarded doctrine of mystical teachings based on a unique interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. He sees her mystical channeling of the letters as a direct connection with God and even comments that her exploring it too fast could be dangerous (a point that sadly never amounts to anything in terms of the film's plot).

At the same time, his son -- played by Max Minghella -- begins to question his Judaism and thus begins hanging out with a Hare Krishna embodied by Kate Bosworth (boy, they could recruit a lot of converts if they all looked like her). Meanwhile, dear old mom progressively goes off the dead end. That's symbolized a bit too overtly by a kaleidoscope view of her through such a light refracting instrument that ties in thematically to her ulterior motive as she develops her own sort of religious shrine that she hopes will fix things, just like her husband has said is possible.

I know, it all sounds very intriguing, but at times it comes off like a nonsensical but pretentious word made up of otherwise potent combinations of letters. In the end, it's compelling yet frustrating as all of the material often feels at odds with itself, trying to spell out something profound and important, but occasionally ending up as nothing more than gibberish. "Bee Season" gets an A for effort, but just a C for overall execution of its complex array of thematic material. The film rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 1, 2005 / Posted November 18, 2005

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